Editorial: Teach your children well

by The Listener / 21 February, 2013
Although the process has been mismanaged, Christchurch schools do need to change, and grandstanding won’t help.
Hekia Parata
Hekia Parata: underperforming, photo/Getty Images.

The decision-making process around Canterbury’s quake-affected schools has been badly handled – and not just by the Government and officials. There has been a slew of inequities and non sequiturs, pitiful research and poor communication. Even now, the Government acknowledges it might have to further readjust the balance of closures and mergers.

But unless Cantabrians can find it in themselves to rule a line under decisions once they are finalised in the coming months, they risk creating a damaging division with other New Zealanders and undermining their own children’s sense of confidence and security.

This is a time for leadership, and although that displayed by the Government has at times been lamentable, the most important leaders in this process are parents and teachers. The sight of children, some too young even to attend school, being slung with protest signs and paraded for the media, while their parents and even senior teachers bellow raucously at cameras and fail to restrain their sobs, is not likely to engender much sympathy.

Strong advocacy to keep one’s school open is laudable, and this process has been a heartening demonstration of how deeply many people value their children’s schools. However, some teachers appear to be putting political and employment considerations ahead of their young students’ welfare. Some parents, too, have imbued youngsters with an undue sense of insecurity, even while proclaiming their desire to spare their children stress.

Having to change schools is something many children face, sometimes repeatedly, when their parents move to follow jobs. It need not be a trauma or even marginally damaging. Indeed, with positive support, it can help build a confidence and resilience that will stand youngsters in good stead, especially in a modern workplace that requires flexibility and an ability to welcome challenges. In this case, no child is changing schools alone. But if parents and teachers continue to frame the experience as a catastrophe and an injustice, it surely will be traumatic.

It’s undeniable that Canterbury children have faced the kind of stress few others – in this country, at least – have had to cope with, in the destruction of much of their city, including often their own homes. It’s also understandable that the continuity of normal life that schools provide has been of enormous benefit.

But in a region that has consequently undergone large population shifts and faced irremediable new geographical strictures, it would be irresponsible were the Government not to reconfigure its education services.

As with other projects in the sector, this one has found the Ministry of Education flat-footed and slapdash. The property reports on which the first round of interim decisions were made contained obvious errors. The Government’s failure to handle the process with tact, even by the most basic expedient of having Education Minister Hekia Parata personally visit the likely affected schools early in the process, has beggared belief.

It is also beyond unfortunate that the provisional announcement specified that twice as many schools would be affected as is now likely. That created needless stress, and possibly simply for tactical reasons. Politicians often portend a bleaker outcome than they secretly intend, in order to look merciful and willing to compromise later.

Prime Minister John Key’s mulish retention of the under-performing Parata, who has become a lightning rod for National’s unpopularity, was also irresponsible in this context. Her haughty, unapologetic figureheading of this exercise, among others, has added political fury to genuine local pain. Parents and teachers who already oppose National have found it irresistible to catastrophise this issue in a way they might have resisted given a more sympathetic salesperson.

The most important responsibility remains with parents and teachers to strive to make the schools’ changes succeed, however flawed or unfair they might consider the plan.

Being prepared, as at least one principal was, to announce his school’s fate, whatever it was to be, in front of live TV cameras, suggests an appetite for political publicity has begun to supersede the duty to avoid panicking and upsetting children and parents. This is not a time for grandstanding.

Canterbury is a special case, even in an economy where most people are having to make sacrifices and many endure undeserved hardship. But more teacher weeping and toddler protesting won’t obviate the need for some upheaval for schools in Christchurch – it will simply sap much-needed empathy.
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